Swann rising: a big-time talent runs for governor

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Pittsburgh, Pa.

LYNN SWANN is in motion, pushing a gray-haired lady in a wheelchair to her poker game. When she gets there, she asks the young man his name. He says, “I’m Lynn Swann.” She says, “No, you’re not, you’re sh**tin’ me.” I’m given to understand that this is the way grannies talk in western Pennsylvania.

We’re in Castle Shannon, a community outside Pittsburgh, at a summer festival. Swann is running for governor, on the Republican ticket. Very few people have to ask his name. He shows up–anywhere in the state, by all accounts–and they come running to him. Swann is a football hero, particularly in this area. He played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 to 1983, helping to win four Super Bowls, winding up in the Hall of Fame. (Swann was a wide receiver.) He still looks like he could suit up, too, fit as he is.

About a half-hour later, we’re at another summer festival, in South Park (not to be confused with the South Park of television notoriety). Apolka band plays on the stage. And the candidate is being showered with “Lynn love,” as his staff calls it. People receive him ecstatically, their faces all alight. Men want to jaw with him, women want to hug him. After meeting Swann, a man looks at me wonderingly and says, “I shook his hand.” Almost everyone wants a picture and an autograph. Swann will pose for any picture–and answer any question, at length–but he won’t sign an autograph. He’d never make it out of any campaign event, he explains. It would be nonstop signing.

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When he enters the bingo tent, the players cheer and squeal, like bobbysoxers at Sinatra. He is privileged to call out the next number. “S-88,” he says, to a roar of laughter. (Eighty-eight was his Steelers number, and S, of course, is his initial.) He then says he can’t read the real number without his glasses–“like a lot of you,” he adds, to more appreciative laughter. Swann is a bit of a teaser, but of a gentle, charming type.

Many athletes have run for office. These include Bill Bradley (basketball), Jim Bunning (baseball), Steve Largent (football), and Jim Ryun (the miler)–and I have named only political winners. Athletic celebrity aside, Swann is one of three black Republicans running in prominent races this year. The others are Michael Steele, the Senate candidate in Maryland, and Kenneth Blackwell, the gubernatorial candidate in Ohio.

Swann is a conservative, and a classic Reagan conservative. (So are Steele and Blackwell, incidentally.) He’s against high taxation, big spending, and heavy regulation. He is pro-life, pro-enterprise, and pro-reform. He’s pushing all sorts of reform, in welfare policy, tort law, and so on. In fact, his campaign bus is called “Reform One.” Swann talks a lot about “standing on your own two feet,” in part so you can help others, who have more difficulty standing. And he believes that political leaders should have the guts to say no.

Swann’s opponent is the incumbent governor, Ed Rendell. Before being sent to Harrisburg, he was mayor of Philadelphia and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Rendell is a canny politician, not ostentatiously left-wing. He knows how to employ a populist touch–more bowling and beer than windsurfing and “Why can’t I have my water?”

The political pros say that Rendell will beat Swann, for a number of reasons. First, Pennsylvanians have never–never–ousted an incumbent governor, odd as that may seem. Second, the state has been trending Democratic, becoming ever “bluer.” Third, the electoral ducks are in Philadelphia and environs, Rendell territory. Fourth, this is a lousy Republican year–for one thing, President Bush is u footballnpopular.

Fifth, Swann is a novice, starry as he may be. And he’s up against a tough, bruising veteran. But Swann scoffs at any suggestion of unreadiness, certainly when it comes to governing. He mentions several politicians whose maiden office was governor: Bush, Reagan, Mitt Romney, Arnold. (Somehow he neglects to mention Jesse Ventura.) Swann does not lack for confidence. But it’s not a cocky confidence–more serene.

The morning after those festivals, in his Pittsburgh campaign office, we talk about his life and views. Swann was born in 1952, in Alcoa, Tenn. (home of the aluminum company). His father was a janitor. When Lynn was quite young, the family moved to San Mateo, Calif. They attended a Baptist church, where Lynn preached on Children’s Day, at least once. He remains a devoted Baptist, and is joined in that faith by his wife, Charena. They have two sons, ten and eight.

Lynn was elected president of his eighth-grade class (and says now that he is running for a lower office). But he had little time for politics after that; he was too busy being a sports star. It’s helpful to bear in mind that we are talking about someone who has been famous, pretty much, since he was in college. His favorite sport was basketball, and he was recruited by John Wooden, the legendary coach at UCLA. But he went to USC to play football.

As Swann tells it, he wasn’t especially talented, in relation to others. But he worked very hard, and was very, very competitive. He also had what he describes as “gamesmanship”: “I understood how to play the game–whatever game it was–and paid attention to the nuances. I learned how to position myself against an opponent. I just found a way to win.” And does that ability transfer to politics? “We’ll see,” says Swann.

After his professional football career, he engaged in a package of activities. He was a broadcaster for ABC Sports. He toured the country as a speaker, and sat on several corporate boards. He hosted a game show for a while (To Tell the Truth). He was an important player in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization. From 2002 to 2005, he was chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. All the while, he has been making political contacts, preparing, in a way, for the new career.

Swann was “born” a Democrat, but became a Republican in the 1970s, thinking for himself, coming into his own. He was a friend of Pennsylvania senator John Heinz, who died in a plane crash in 1991. And what did he think of the senator’s wife? “I’ve always liked Teresa,” he says.

Asked whether he has any political models, he says no. (I’ve never heard a politician give that answer to this question, by the way.) He philosophizes a bit, touching on the “Freudian” and “Jungian” aspects of the human animal. He says that people can change how they think and how they live; they need not be trapped by their (temporary) circumstances. “We have choices, we have freedoms.”

He also talks about suffering and its uses, citing Job in particular. I remark that, to the outsider, he himself seems not to have suffered much. He was a golden child, blessed with looks, smarts, charisma, and gobs of talent (no matter what he says). He has been a champ in virtually everything he has ever tried. You would think that he’d never broken a sweat. Not so?

“Not so,” says Swann, smilingly. He then reflects on race and racism. He mentions four hugely successful black Americans: the CEO of American Express, the CEO of Time Warner, the secretary of state, and her immediate predecessor. None of them whooshed his way to the top. But Swann is adamant on the need to “get away from excuses and start executing a plan.” He likes to say, “Never let anyone make you less than who you are, or what you can be.” He also says, “Don’t live in the gutter.” And, “Your greatest obstacle is the person who looks at you in the mirror”–we all have choices.

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Obviously, Swann takes some heat from his fellow blacks, for his party affiliation and his beliefs. But he doesn’t mind the heat, and says that many black Democrats are supporting him (some publicly, some quietly). And he doesn’t need the vote of every citizen: “This is not a perfect world–51 percent would be just fine.” I ask whether he ever faces open resentment from black men, in particular. He answers, simply and straightforwardly, “Yes.” And how does he deal with that? Does he try to reach such people, or does he merely slough it off? “I go case by case,” Swann says.

At this point in the campaign, he’s behind Ed Rendell in fundraising, but President Bush is coming in soon, to make up some of the difference. This year, a lot of Republicans are running away from Bush, but Swann is upfront in his admiration. He says, “I think he’s done a tremendous job,” with challenges of an extraordinary nature. History will credit him, says Swann, if written fairly.

Swann won’t contemplate life after a November loss, because he won’t contemplate a loss. He’s going all out, from early morning to late at night, executing his plan, making adjustments as necessary. The latest polls have him between 10 and 15 points down. His staff points out that Rendell has been spending his money, airing TV ads, which have been unanswered by Swann. The Republican’s own ads won’t go up until after Labor Day. And then it will be a whole new ballgame, they say.

Leaving Swann’s headquarters, I jump into a cab, driven by a man in a Steelers jersey. I tell him I’ve just been with ol’No. 88, who looks like he could still play today. The driver–a rough-talking, left-leaning political analyst–says, “Well, he might as well start running pass routes, because he sure as hell won’t be governor of this state.” That is, indeed, the conventional wisdom. I myself am not so sure. We might want to check back in, round about the end of October.

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